What follows is an account of the wine trip that Little’s Wine Buyer, Ashley Hausman, went on with the owner, Jim Little, and his partner of Coaltrain Wine & Spirits in Colorado Springs, Peggy McKinlay. It was a couple of crazy fast weeks with unforgettable moments. If you need a little vaca, pull up a chair and scroll through our little journey. Start from the bottom and work your way on up!
A Visit with Chave to Never Forget…
Without a doubt, the hospitality and generosity we felt by the Chaves were the highlight of the trip. I have always joked that my first hard core crush was the southern Rhone. But the beauty and wonder in the steeply terraced hills of the north were mesmerizing. I couldn’t quite get enough.
It began with a family in Tain l’Hermitage that welcomed us into their home. Bruno and Julie Bradley lived in a sensational turn-of-the-century home and was careful to respect that moment in time in its decor. They ran a one bedroom B&B called La Marronniere that will forever be impressed on my mind. Each morning began with a hearty (but heart friendly) petit dejuner, much of its contents Julie bought each morning as she rode her bicycle into town. We would take breakfast in a gorgeous, room reserved for her l’Attelier–hat shop. She was the person to see in all the Rhone if you were needing a handcrafted hat for any occasion. Each one more interesting than the next, it was quite the lift of spirit in that colorful, fanciful room each morning, with the tall door open wide unto the lawn. Serenity is a drab word to describe it. We’ll just say, Erin Chave (Jean-Louis’ wonderful wife) hooked us up!
We traveled to Chateauneuf du Pape and visited an old favorite the first day: Domaine Pegau. Unfortunately, the vigneron Lawrence was not there. In fact, even the assistant who was to meet us forgot and left for Nimes! Lawrence’s mother, who spoke about as much English as I do French, would not see us leave, though. She carefully took us to the cellar and gave us the lineup.
Every year–good or bad the vintage may be– these wines manage to astound me. To prove it, we were fortunate to try both a 2008 and 2009 of their main label CdP. Both demonstrated complexity of flavor and depth. The 2008 was just more open now–it was desiring consumption. But it by no means was a grandma. The 2008 defied the stereotypes of its vintage, unraveled one aroma after the next, and did not succumb to a weak timbre as so many have that I have tried. I never could have guess on taste/smell alone.
The 2009 was simply amazing. It had all the likely suspects that the 08 had—lavender, garrigue, raspberry, chewy anise, black tea leaves and a healthy dose of wild, bramble berries– the difference was in the feel of this wine. It wrapped around my tongue and held tight using its considerable tannin and noticeable (though not terribly high) acid. It was meant to stay quiet for a few more years at least.
The next morning we went to what my friend calls the ‘DRC of the Rhone’ a lofty title that goes to a region I quite possibly have the most trouble admiring: Condrieu. The place he admires so? Domaine Georges Vernay. The thing is, I can love Viognier when handled in a very particular way. Like a high school football star, if it isn’t careful and rests on its laurels, it very well can get a bit chubby on the mid-palate, by which I mean the acid falls and the opulence of this floral, peachy grape takes over everything. It can be a walk through the pristine gardens of Versaille one moment and just as easily as that person next to you on an international flight that manages to think her cheapest perfume is a wonderful idea to share with her fellow passengers.
Vernay is, without a doubt, the best in the land. I experienced this singular winery a coupe years ago at a Martine’s wine tasting in San Francisco. They perhaps had 2 bottles of the flagship Coteaux de Cornon for hundreds of people, so it was kept beneath the table for pestering people such as myself. Georges Vernay began this project in the 1950’s. His daughter Catherine, who is the current winemaker, has not only carried the torch, she has established her skills in Cote Rotie with reds.
Though we were not with Catherine herself, we did get a rigorous tasting through about 12 wines with their tasting room manager. She was a petite, smiling French woman who was only too eager to please with these ridiculously good pours. You can tell she rarely deals with people who do not approve.
These wines have the power to change one’s opinion about Viognier. It did for me, and it did for my fellow travelers. These often flamboyant, flabby whites are kept in tight and made to produce a strip tease of wonder. One element after the next is revealed in these wines. To explain it is insane, as each one of us experienced it in a completely different way. The only thing we agreed up that day was that it danced on our palates. It lured us to try again and attempt to decipher the complex message. Mostly, this message was terroir. But terroir is awful difficult to articulate.
It was finally time for our rendezvous at Chaves–a night I have looked forward to for months since it was planned. We walked up to a humble unmarked door, unsure it was the right one. We saw in small print ‘Gerard Chave’ on the bell and gave it a go. Sure enough, a polite Frenchwoman opened the door and let us in to his winery. A small line of goosebumps crawled up my spine. I didn’t need to know one thing about this historic, important winery to feel the centuries pass through me in a flash of a moment. A smiley, blonde-haired American comes out to greet us. Forget handshakes, I was getting a large hug. Chave’s wife, Erin, was the picture of American-girl-next-door perfection. She had on a black tank top, some jeans and trusty flip-slops–sandals that I swear are never to be seen on French people. I learned quickly she was a girl from Missouri, worked for Kermit Lynch, met Chave… and the rest was one massive, 17th generation history.
They now have two kiddos: Louise and Emma. The first, a well-mannered and spoken young man at the age of 6 (?). He took his role as big brother (and next heir) quite seriously. When my colleague said to him, “How does it feel to be king of this land”, as we stood atop the vineyards looking out at the Rhone, he simply answered, “It is a very nice view.” Emma, on the hand, is a force to be reckoned with, I’m calling it now! This strong-headed, hard-working farm girl of the large age of 3 1/2 was taking me around, introducing me to plants, fish, noting problems in the garden, and bringing my attention to small details I may have never seen. I observed in her an innate connection to the soil already– the evidence of Chave DNA manifested in her every movement. She was a vineyard manager in birth. A firecracker, one might describe, I could see she was a handful–but her parents lit up when they talked about her.
We got a tour of the old cellars while we tasted several samples still in barrel and learned that it wasn’t always here that his family made wine. In fact, their famed Hermitage was a purchase in the 1860’s, when land was available and not yet devastated by phylloxera. His ancestors saw an opportunity and thankfully went for it. As he generously tried us on a 1994 Hermitage Blanc, a wine that is showing very promising and marked development, though I would have wished to hang out with it a bit longer to see its evolution, he described the general history of winemaking he was able to learn through old reports and journals about his family’s estate. He had a very real sympathy for phylloxera, as the words his ancestors wrote described the horror in tangible detail. It was as though I were hearing this nightmare of a story for the first time, his execution was so genuine. No one in Europe knew what was happening for years. They just observed a decline in production, unable to understand the cause felt ‘round the country. He then showed us an old room with bottles from the 1920’s-40’s. His family hid them from the Nazis. It was a powerful sight to behold.
Finally he grabbed an unmarked bottle, gave it a rub, and we headed to the vineyards for a final tour of his St. Joseph vines. He timed it perfectly. The sun began to soften the color cast on the vines. I could see for miles the endless bumps of terraced vineyards in the region. I don’t even want to attempt to explain. It was an aesthetic height I have rarely ever reached.
We followed him to his house then, as he paved the way in Erin’s old Land Rover, trudging up the steep hills. Finally, at the top we pulled into his driveway. A tire swing hung on the tree. A garden was flourishing with tomatoes, squash and strawberries. And the sun was setting behind the Alps, which formed the backdrop for the Rhone river and valley below. We all took a walk through these Hermitage vineyards that lay in his backyard. I could see why it was so varied and complex when we were shown the vast differences in soil plots left in a patchwork fashion by glaciers and deposits. Some soils had fine loess, others decomposed granite, and still other cailloux river pebbles–like small galets one sees in Chateauneuf.
As we returned to the house, I noted it was quite modern inside yet encased in an old, preserved shell which was the outside. I loved the juxtaposition. We enjoyed an evening of excellent food, good stories, laughter and, of course, real fine wine, including the unmarked bottle of 1999 Hermitage Rouge. These moments I feel like the luckiest person in the world. And so, thank you Jean-Louise and Erin for accenting my life’s portrait with a colorful streak of fortune and felicity.
So This is Burgundy: Part 2
2012 has not been easy for Burgundians. They need just about every gulp of sun they can get, and this vintage has just been cool, rainy and unforgiving. That was the repeated theme at nearly every winery we visited. But that does not mean all is lost. Those who know what’s up just have to work for it a little harder is all. And if all else fails, just go with Grand Cru from mediocre years. As Jeremy Seysses of Dujac said, no matter how much you want to take all the credit, mother nature just makes it looks so easy on a consistent basis, whether the vintage is superb or somber.
Due to this trying vintage, our visit with Mikulski (Meursault) was cancelled the day following Dujac. If the weather demanded it so, the vigneron needed to respond. It was a very busy time in Burgundy, as most winemakers here remarked. Just driving down the route des vins, I was amazed to see how many more workers were in the vineyards compared to other regions we had been. Whether plowing or pruning, they were busy bees, trying to do whatever it took to make good of a dire situation.
Still, you ask any one of them, and that’s they beauty of Burgundy. Regardless of what you do, mother nature has her fingerprint on everything here– you will taste the work that was done in the 2012’s. Here, wine is so transparently scribed in each sip. You will sense their long, chill days and the rain. You will either prefer it or not. She doesn’t care.
In lieu of Mikulski, Javillier graciously offered their time, not only to us but to what appeared to be a tribe of misfits. Four separate groups huddled in the damp cellar to taste some magnificent Meursault as well as some other cuvees from various neighboring regions. Meursault is oft noted for its more pregnant style of Chardonnay. Some can overdo the oak a bit perhaps, but if it is done well, they can be some of the best in the land. Javillier was one of those producers.
Before I press onward, I feel I need to describe Patrick Javillier. He might have been my favorite personality sketch I will recall from this trip. In short, he was a sweet, humble man, perhaps 60 years in age and the ultimate, stereotypical Burgundian winemaker I have always imagined: tussled hair, flurried half-sentences, one moment he was grabbing glasses, the next taking a bite of baguette. He appeared a genius with calculations of yeast additions or barrel treatments racing through his big brain. He scurried around seemingly frazzled, when I noticed how lab-like his winery entry felt. Bare bones, concrete floor and definitely like a science lab. I was waiting for stickers of flower power to appear. Or perhaps Austin Power.
Sure enough, as he explained his estate, we learned that he began in 1974. Yes, now that made sense. It also made me like him already. I can’t explain why that ambience resonates with me. But it does. He then took is basket of glasses down to the cellar and began the show of the just bottled 2010’s.
Whether ‘simple’ village Bourgogne Blanc on a plot nearby Puligny-Montrachet or a old vine Meursault from Clos du Clomas, they wines were spot on and illuminating! My favorites of the bunch were:
Bourgogne Blanc Cuvee Oligocene–Taken from a plot nearby Puligny Montrachet, this gives all other Bourgogne a run for its money! Its higher limestone content allows for a little more new barrel (it can take it), the acid is simply soaring, and wet stones on the nose pair nicely with the accompaniment of white flowers that come afterwards.
Meursault les Tilliets– A plot between Meursault and Puligny that sees clay as well as limestone. A very classic presentation of candied lemon, apples and shimmering minerals, it gives this opulent region a more zesty edge. This is what I am talking about when I say I crave Meursault.
Puligny Montrachet– All elbows and knees right now as it awkwardly wrestle with my taste buds, but this ugly duckling is sure to blow many of its companions out of the water with a little bit of maturity. ‘Patience’, a term so many vignerons in this area use to explain their creations. An elegant swan is what I predict in 3-5 years time.
I felt bad spitting these wines out. At our other visits so far, I noticed that the winemaker had us pour it back in barrel or the bottle. So little is made. And Javellier is no exception. The only reason I don’t have it in Colorado is that production is so teeny tiny. Maybe they should start having people give their tastes back so Colorado can see some distribution!
Patrick Javillier’s lovely daughter Marion is also making her mark. Her focus is red wine. She has a couple plots in Savigny les Beaune. The two wines she poured were Les Grands Liards and 1er Cru Serpentieres. Though the former was going through a bit of an awkward stage trying to become something lovely, the latter was already there. Impressively charming wines from an equally charming creator.
We finished that day at Pavelot– a heralded producer in the region of Savigny les Beaune. Their winemaking ancestry can be traced to teh 17th century, but Luc Pavelot would say it goes further than that. On a mere 9 hecatares, they build up and fashion fragrant, fanciful wines of both red (66%) and whites (33%). We partook mostly of the former. I could give you detailed tasting notes and jargon galore. But you must be bored of this by now. No? Well, I am. I am more interested in the character of these wines–the timbre, the presence they imprint on my palate.
In short, I would describe these wines as herbal. Each and every wine we sampled carried the scent of bramble fruit, rosemary, pine and medicinal essences. They were incredibly complicated and varied.
It was here that I came to a revelation: Burgundy cannot be described at all. The differences between terroir is felt. On the tongue. Some nestle themselves in the middle. Other weave back and forth, a tug of war. Others sing on the sides. Yet others play the in the back field. And while it might be easy to say Gevrey-Chmabertain felt remarkably different from Santenay, even more illuminating was the fact that even those that were all from Savigny les Beaune, for instance, also sat on the tongue in a variety of ways.
So this is it! THIS is Burgundy. It was so eye-opening to me, yet not requiring sight whatsoever. On the palate, it is felt. That simple. Frickin’ Burgundy. What will I do with this incessantly paradoxal region. Here I am now calling it simple. Right.
My favorites from Pavelot (all 2010’s):
Aloxe-Corton Village– A well-woven cross-patch work of art, this is a balanced wine with marked integrity. Classic example of the herbal-kissed bramble fruit I discussed.
Les Serpentieres 1er Cru– A site that benefits from numerous exposures, this Pinot Noir is polite yet full of purpose. It takes the hallmark combination of Burgundian greatness (balance of mineral, fruit, acid, body, tannin and lightness) and somehow pulls it off.
Dominode 1er Cru– Though closed right now, it has secrets only time will reveal. Tightly wound up and desperate to talk, this wine makes you know you are sipping greatness. Without a doubt, a wine for the long haul of 15-20 years.
And so, that is that. While I would love to recommend places to eat, we did not try firsthand any that were noteworthy. We did, however, hear of many that we were just a little too budget-conscious to try, otherwise they were closed. Everyone is on holiday you see. But here’s the short list:
Bar du Square
I also recommend you visit the Hospices de Beaune. A little touristy? Yes. But worth it? Certainly. For about 8 euros you get to experience the formative days of this historic auction.
So This is Burgundy: Part 1
Despite the fact that I had completely messed up our first appointment with Mugnier in Chambolle-Musigny and therefore had to cancel due to an unfortunate incident in Macon, I was not down for long. As I entered the Cote d’Or (like ‘coat door’) region of Burgundy that late morning, I felt a shift. We wound our way through the circular city of Beaune and pulled up to an inviting hotel: Hotel de Remparts. Through the courtyard we climbed the stairs to our room. I was in heaven, for I had a separate bedroom AND bathroom– unheard of around 100 euros a night for 3 folks.
I couldn’t linger long, though. We had a stacked schedule to keep, so off we went to Gevrey-Chambertin to visit with Burguet– a name that just sounds like natural born Burghound. We meet with our guide, Danielle Hammon, from Becky Wasserman Selections, to translate when necessary. She herself was an aspiring winemaker doing some training in Dijon. At first, this visit had us chasing around a very focused young man, Jean-Luc Burguet, as he took his thief and tasted us on several wines from the 2011 vintage–one that was more challenging than the high acid, classics of 2010, but nonetheless churned out some high quality reds if grapes were in skilled hands like those of Jean-Luc.
My favorite was, well, Mes Favorites, made of 70 year old vines on their property in Gevrey-Chambertin. Still in the barrel, it manages to present the most delicate reds fruits, floral petals and structure that ensured that it had all the makings of a fine wine to come.
Once he took us on a tour through the wines from his domaine as well as those in which he sources grapes from neighboring villages, he kicks back, slows down and just chats with us a bit. He is clearly an energetic guy who is only too happy to walk with his brother in the footsteps his dad started. As we sip on his Clos de Beze, I am distracted by its pronounced moldy presentation. Only then, in my stupidity, do I realize I am 2 inches from some of the largest, fluffiest, puffballs of mold that cover these old cellars. Yikes! I take a few steps, sniff again, and within the layers of cherry and cinnamon realize it would be a sin to drink this again in less than 8 years. Same goes for his Vosne-Romanee 1er cru, a wine whose youthful wit shouted at my tongue to get it back in the barrel! Alas, I will have to discover who this mouthy little toddler might become in a decade.
We eat at a little brasserie in the village of Gevrey, as we have no time to try the famous Chez Guy before our next rendezvous. It was the perfect place for an afternoon bite. They specialized in tartines with lovely homegrown salad, if you fancy a lighter lunch.
Finally, we make our way to the next town down–Morey Saint Denis–to see one of my favorite producers: Domaine Dujac. Not only are they regarded the best in this sub-region, they truly are one of the best in all of Burgundy. To meet with Jeremy Seysses was an honor. My fiancee just had to join for this, so he broke away from the Tour’s rest day for a quick visit. What I like most about Jeremy is that he is a normal dude. He doesn’t pontificate, he doesn’t try and make you think anything, really. He just casually pours one phenomenal wine after the next and you decide for yourself. Meanwhile, he wants to hear all the Tour dirt. His father and whole family, really, are hugely into cycling. I knew it would be love at first sight when JV met Jeremy.
Meanwhile, us cork dorks fell into the complexities and subtle differences of each selection, all drawn from the 2010, acid-lover’s vintage. We shifted from Santenay to Chambolle-Musigny to Vosne-Romanee and Chaume-Chambertin. He had my heart with the Morey St. Denis, though. A very faint recollection of Rayas actually surfaced on my mind. When I brought this Chateauneuf up to Jonathan, he too was amazed at the uncanny similarity. Of course, it wasn’t as broad on the palate, nor rich and high in alcohol. But it was reminiscent of one of my favorites wines on earth for its elegance, fine grained texture and brambly, musky earthiness. Fabulous!
Second only to that was the Vosne-Romanee 1er Cru. In a purely objective, professional world, this may have been the most impressive one I tasted. But you can’t control nor explain love–and I just fell hard for the Morey. That said, this lovely little parcel sits near the famed La Tache. It bouquet eagerly pushes its way to the surface of the glass with a sexy song, hitting notes of candied cherries and some alpine herbal undertones. It had this way of saturating your tongue with richness whilst maintaining a lightness. You were certain to have imagined it all, really, until you take another sip. Like every teeny spec of your palate was sated. Quite incredible sensation, really. Returning to the rim, more feminine aromas of lavender and forest lichen develop. I remember where I am, and although it doesn’t shock me that they are amazing wines, still I am mystified that soil can have such variant, haunting and impressionable personalities.
We sat on the patio with his dad and wife Diana, we shared a 1998 Domaine Dujac Les Grunchers 1er Cru from Chambolle-Musigny, a stunning portrait of a vintage that wasn’t often painted with strokes of grandeur or longevity, in part for its harsh tannins. You could have fooled me. This red was a very elegant and understated–demure, if you will. It was not tannic or disjointed; not drying or weak. It was 14 years old, and it was not taking going to lie down and simply accept any crap about 84 point vintages from any critics, including ‘certain’ high-profiled ones.
As I look out on their property, I think about their life. He and his wife are both winemakers. They travel between Burgundy, Provence and Napa to care for their vines. Their other babies are their two children. They have their hands full, but they pull it off so well. To me, they represent something important in Burgundy: they are a breath of fresh air and innovative ideas in a region that is steeped in ancient culture and practices. While maintain traditional in some respects and embrace some modern practices in the winery, they don’t get lost in their own projects so much that they are detached with the world. They talk of news articles, cycling, business, economy, what have you. In fact, Jeremy even has a very active Twitter account, which makes his life in the vines accessible to anyone who wants to hear about his day to day. He embraces that interaction with the world and allows a new way to create a dialogue with the ever-intimidating Burgundy region.
Our day came to a close, and we headed back to our cute hotel to relax and collect our thoughts. Burgundy was possibly more complicated now to me than it was before. We went to these properties, but their barrels represented so many parcels, regions, terroirs and styles. In part, I am still so overwhelmed. In part, I am more attracted though to its complex particularities. On the whole, I’ve a feeling this relationship is only just beginning. Like any great love, it will take time to really have a handle on this thing called Burgundy.
But then again, I like a challenge.
A Pause from the Wine Tour…for the Bike Tour.
No matter how much you try to plan travel flawlessly, there will always be moments of, errr, miscalculation. If it weren’t so, I wouldn’t find myself and hour and a half away from my group in a random little village called Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne, a town I somehow believed was 15 minutes from Beaune when I was first sketching out this plan. I decided to take a taxi to the gare (train station) in Macon and catch a train up to Beaune this morning.
But I sit here now at the wrong one, of course. 7 k away from the other. And hopeless. I resort to calling my poor boss, who has ordered me stay put, as he will just get me. And so, now I can sit, drink my teeny tiny coffee and munch on yet another croissant: breakfast of (future heavyweight) champions.
When we left Alsace, we headed to the Jura to watch the finish of Stage 8. Though only 6 men were left standing, they held their heads up high. As JV mentioned in a twitter: ‘In cycling, a good team isn’t defined by how perfect it is in winning moments, but instead how it moves onward when all is shit. Onward.” Talking with the guys after Stage 8, it was clear to me that this was their group effort to make lemonade and not dwell on the past. I have always admired pragmatism and persistence. And so, this year’s Tour will be about that in my mind. You cannot be on top all the time. That’s just the truth. Much harder to rise to the occasion day after day when the chance for a final podium spot seems unlikely. My respect for them has grown even more.
I stay with them that night and get up to watch the start of Stage 9 in Arcs-et-Senans, where we enter a massive stone fort to park the team cars and bus. Everyone else seems more into spandex that ancient history. I ask several people where the heck we were, and they look around as if they hadn’t noticed and in a distracted tone simply say, “I have no idea.” My need to know only grows, and I learn that it is actually a salt mine from the 1700′s. It was central to France’s source for salt: ‘it was of paramount economic importance.’ Its grand presence is all I need to be convinced of its importance. The next time someone threatens that they will send me to the salt mines to work, I might take them up on it!
Zabriskie is up to ride his time trial, and I hop in the back seat of a team car with the NBC sports guy in the front, a team mechanic to my right and my man driving. We speed out and watch Zab’s butt for the next 40k. Zabriskie has always been one of my favorite riders. He has a pretty warped sense of humor and a slight undertone of morbidity–both of which I relate to immensely. His dry, sardonic sentences never cease to hit me just right, and I am laughing for days when I recall it. For example, yesterday, he discussed with me his backup plan after his cycling career: to open a blow-dry salon called DZ Nutz Cutz. Where people can pay too much to get their hair dried. Of course, that’s not where the concept ends. This place will also offer a selection of beef jerky and hot air balloon rides as well. (What???!) We all laugh like it’s natural enough… but it’s not. Only for him.
Last night, we stayed in a very adorable hotel in Chatillon-sur-Chalaronne, if you should ever go: the appropriately named Hotel de la Tour in the Place de la Republique. They describe themselves as a place for ‘cacooning and gastronimique’. Our cacoon had an open bathroom on raised tile, a clawfoot tub and an ambience that resembled an Anthropologie ad. All grey and brown tones, I felt I might have stepped into a piece of poetry, it was so delicate and pristine. I was happy to see they were given a nice place for their rest day. Because trust me, they ain’t all like this. In fact, many make the Holiday Inn appear luxurious!
We break from the team and head over to a nearby pizzaria with the team’s PR guru and the astrophysicist. The place they find is a total gem: Cafe Gourmand Maison– a little local joint with an impressive stone fire. The wine choices are extremely limited, maybe 1 rose, 3 whites and 3 reds. But they are awesome. We enjoy a Provencal rose and a Vacqueyras. The salads taste fresh pulled from the garden. We all regressed and shared banana splits for dessert. I never realized what a difference bitter Dutch chocolate ice cream could make! 15 euro later for each of us for everything, and I was floored. A definite must if you pass through this village.
Driving to this station, I still really saw no vineyards. I am eager to get on to the Cote d’Or, where we plan to go to Chambolle-Musigny, Meursault and Gevrey-Chambertin just today! Stay tuned for those travels in the next couple days…
On the Cutest Place on Earth! Eguisheim, Alsace.
I have taught classes on Alsace many times, explaining this magical place from what I had read in books, seen in pictures and learned from others’ experiences. Never could I have prepared myself for what I saw with my own eyes.
The Haut-Rhin department of Alsace, south of Strasbourg and certainly the best area for grapegrowing, is stacked with cute then cuter villages, one after the next. Not a mile goes by before you enter another enchanted little town. They love their flowers! You feel immersed in them as they drip from each window box, dangle from street posts and erupt from hundreds of pots around town. The uneven two story houses glue together were off all shapes and colors, held together by hand hewn logs. As though a community of munchkins or oomp loompas conspired to create a paradise to call home, it felt I was walking through a candyland dream.
Every step inspired a genuine need to shout ‘cute!’ or ‘adorable!’. Even I was sick of me after an hour or so. We walked around the town of Colmar to get our bearings. Everyday townspeople and tourists alike filled the streets, strolled past the markets, took boats down the canal and dipped into shops. There was a terrific energy to this second largest town in Alsace. We had a little tarte flambee and continued our tour. We noticed the time, and worked our way back to the car to make our appointment with Emile Beyer in Eguisheim, not 15 minutes away.
When I say Christian Beyer was one of the more gracious and generous people to walk the earth, I fear I still underestimate him. He greeted us in his home and presented to us an itinerary of sorts. “First, I take you around the village? It’s okay? Then a walk through the winery? Then into my vineyards for a look at the various vines? Then we will come back to taste? Finally, my wife and I want to take you to dinner? It’s okay?”
Yes. Yes, that is okay. It truly is above and beyond anything I have had a winemaker offer to do. Especially when he doesn’t really know us at all.
So we were off. He took us through this old village of Eguisheim and discussed its history. He has carried the torch of a winery that has been in the Beyer family for 14 generations. You can tell this is something he values very much. Being the youngest of 4 children, it is a wonder that he was so fortunate to end up with this estate. And curious, too. Why didn’t his two older brothers or sister take it over themselves? It is a question I don’t ask, but I suspect it is to do with the French law/tax that doesn’t make inheritance so glamourous. You have to want it. And that, Christian does.
He walks us through the old church and steeple. He explains the significance of the medieval decor and preserved relics, one that depicts a picture of the fortunate souls who wait for the second coming.. and those of the less fortunate who are impatient and therefore left with empty goblets.
As we continue down the windy, cobbly roads, it is all I can do to laugh outloud. Everything appears perfect in this village. Elder women swing open their colorful windows to wash between the woodwork and shout a friendly ‘bonjour!’ Children giggle as they play hide and go seek. I even catch a teenage boy wink at a young girl as he hops on his bicycle. Seriously people. That’s the land I was in for 24 hours.
Christian points out thinks I would never have noticed–old German sayings etched in the brick, the dates of establishment above each doorway, and even the massive nest that are wedged into chimney shoots beneath large storks that represent mascots in their land. Yep. Storks.
The smiley sausage girl bids us good day, the girl next door sweetly motions to her fromage. My senses are tickled and beyond overstimulated. But sensory stimulation is a drug to me. There is a reason I went into wine, you see.
As I hear the church bells sound and observe a peaceful fountain in the town square, I go to pinch myself, but it makes no difference. It all is still there after I mentally utter: ow. This is a place where people live. I have set a new goal in my mind: move to Eguisheim one day, even if for only a few months.
After a tour of his winery, his incredibly variant vineyard sites (that are managed organically) and a sampling of his wines (all of which are far above their price in terms of quality and length), we head back to our simple, lovely hotel: Auberge Alsacienne, just up the road from the winery. We change quickly and walk with him to a little brasserie in the town square. Here at Restaurant Caveau Heuhaus you can see Chuck Berry’s old companion, Jimmy Bock, playing up a storm in their cabaret.
The menu is very traditional, the food is good, and our hosts crack open a Riesling from their Pfersigberg vineyard. The acid was incredibly fresh– a youth entering its teens, this Riesling has a way to go. Most of their single vineyard Rieslings, in a good vintage, can go well beyond 20 years. The other day we visited Zind Humbrecht, one of the region’s best (if not BEST) producers, and although we didn’t get a chance for a formal tour, it was still very apparent in their lineup that this longevity is not so surprisingly uncommon in Alsace from great growers.
Our jolly old times had to come to a close eventually, which was probably good as a little too much eau de vie ended in a colleague terribly mixing his French with Spanish–shouting ‘señor’ at the waiter… as I nearly died. Our (‘amigo’) hosts were only to quick to understand our American shortcomings when attempting a second language. I admit, it can be difficult to recall words well when your brain has been wired with one second language already. It seems I know more Spanish now than a few years ago, merely because I am exercising it to understand a third one.
In the morning I wake, breathe in the wet cobble stones on my run, and take in the scent of the dew that clings stubbornly to the vines on the the hillside vineyards underneath the threatening glare of the rising sun. I am definitely sad to leave this wonderland. Thankfully, next on the plate is a another day or two with my guy followed by the most amazing wine region on the planet: Burgundy. After an aperitif of Champagne to begin this trip, followed by remarkable whites, I am craving a little red…
By the time I am back from my run, the ever more stubborn sun consumes the remaining dew, takes the rose glass effect down a notch, and I am ready to press onward with this unbelievable ride.
Amuse My Bouche at l’Arnsberg
On Terry Theise’s recommendation (and Bobby Stuckey’s reaction to this recommendation), we took a detour and found ourselves in the middle of nowhere north in the Vosges for a night. Here, hidden among the the thick deciduous trees and trout streams is a Relaix & Chateaux harnessing one of the most famous culinary gems on the planet: L’Arnsbourg, a Michelin-3 rated restaurant. Translation: a highly rated Michelin restaurant (3 being highest) is a place where the food is imaginary, thoughtful and globally influential in shaping taste and culture. L’Arnsbourg was that… and more. This is my first time to a rated 3, I believe, but I have been to a couple others that are executed in the same fashion. When you sit down you are greeted with an aperitif. For us, it was a dry Grand Cru Speigel Muscat from Dirler-Cade while we decided our meal plan. There were essentially 2 choices: expensive 7 course and more expensive 9 course. We were going all out for 29 euro more.
And so, the parade began!
Every time I sit to a meal of more than two courses, I get a wave of excitement when it is just the beginning! There is an evening ahead that promises enlightened cuisine, fanciful art, and new potential for flavors. I am assured that my senses will be saturated. And that is indescribably exciting.
One after the next amuses de la bouche (amusements of the mouth) were brought to our table. I always think of these one-bite wonders as thoughtful considerations for new flavor possibilities. One was a raspberry condensed square with a gritty gel-like texture and salmon aftertaste. Another was a light, icy yet frothy vermouth meets rum concoction. A golden egg came our way with yet another foamy whipped egg with a deep yolk to find at the bottom as well as fresh chives. What looked like ice cream tasted rather like corn on the cob cream. It was smooth, savory and absolutely divine.
Corn was an inspirational feature for them, as in fact we had an entire course devoted to many variations of this seemingly simple, midwestern delight– a pasta of corn paired with cilantro, black sesame and coconut, for example.
We had goose liver in a the shape and design of an Olympic medal as well. I thought perhaps this place could change my mind, but no… I just can’t do it.
Our favorite course was right in the middle of the parade, a seabass bathing in a pond of lemon butter alongside a potato puree (that was really butter puree with potato) and a thick smear of the best hollandaise you might ever taste. I could have died in that bite. It was so unbelievably good, especially when paired with our 2007 Billaud-Simon Montee de Tonnerre Chablis 1er Cru. This dish was so delicious, I actually became unfull. I had been teetering before this course, but it actually energized my palate and got me back on the saddle! Seriously!
The next act was what I like to call Surprise Tomato! But they call it ‘All Around the Tomato’. Here, were presented with a white bowl and drainer dish, upon which are about 7 variations of the most wonderful summertime fruit: the tomato. Various colors and textures complicate the sweet delicacy. And just when we think we are done? Voila! the drain dish is lifted and below is a vegetarian lasagna made of tomato! Our eyes lit up, and we were all quite amused at their stunt. It was unusually similar to real lasagna. Uncanny, really!
We switched into another wine, a red: the 2001 Le Dauphine Fronsac. This and the Chablis were both quite affordable in comparison to the rest of the list (roughly 70 euro each). Both were fantastic. If you are looking to pinch in a coupe areas, trust that this sommelier knows what he is doing. Even if less expensive than some others, these more affordable options do no lack thoughtfulness or complexity. They were perfect.
Next were lovely large lumps of blue lobster and what they call ‘carrot bon bons’–essentially pureed balls of carrot. I like to think of it as the best baby food ever! I admit, however, the pairing with lobster didn’t quite work for me. Separate they were lovely, though.
At this point, I am nearing pain. Though portions are small, they are never-ending. We are delivered the pigeon, and I am least thrilled by this course. It is similar to duck, an animal which I am pretty fair-weathered. I eat it anyway, of course–each bite represents a couple euro. My spirits are revived, however, with the final savory present: a frothy, delicate ‘cappuccino’ or soup with black truffles and bits of potato. I nearly lick the teeny bowl, as though I hadn’t a meal for days and finally sit back, reflecting on the evenings series of events in my mouth.
An equally impressive array of desserts march out of the kitchen, but I am entering comatose at this point. As I shut down, I am again reminded of how lucky I am to be here, in the woods, at a restaurant that might dictate the coming flavors in restaurants around the world in the next couple years. To be apart of art and culture in the making is almost surreal… and so tasty.
A Final Day in Champagne…
Where terroir is written in the wine when it comes to Burgundy–each parcel of land portraying its life with meticulous accuracy–Champagne’s terroir can be a little more difficult to decipher. At least for me. That is why it became so important to pay attention to each individual winemaker’s passion here. Each emphasized particular philosophies and sources for inspiration in their ‘artisinal’ work (a common word each used to describe themselves). For Goeffroy, there was a point to discuss native yeast fermentation, with Pehu-Simonet a shift towards biodynamics, both insisting upon blocked malolactic for cleaner execution of flavor. For Chartogne-Taillet, preservation of history but very progressive in his approach to find terroir in single vineyard bottlings.
The third day, we had only one appointment with one of my favorite producers: Marc Hebrart. There was no tour, rather a seat at a very cozy table and a focused tasting. Though Jean-Paul Herbrart, the current vigneron, spoke a little less English, he communicated so much in his wines and his conversation of them. For him, blending was the way to achieve complexity. He alone owned about 85 different parcels of land, each with its own personality. To keep single might drive him mad, he laughed. A good looking gentleman, you could read laughter in his face over the years. It suited him and made us all so comfortable around him. Jean-Paul explained that for him, pieces of wine are so much greater together than the sum of its parts. Having just been on the other side of the tracks with Alexandre Chartogne, we appreciated another perspective, but nevertheless remained Switzerland in our opinion, grateful for so many styles!
Here, I really finally understood the great differences between Champagne’s Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on the tongue. The former brought me back to raspberry La Croix water when I was young (only infinitely better!). The bramble fruit of raspberry, blackberry, blueberry and even black cherry dominated the flavors. Yeastier notes were to be found on the nose. For Chardonnay, elegance was centerstage. Lemon curd, yogurt and citrus peel were the reliable traits I kept meeting. The palate carried more acid and less body. They are sort of like hearing a child with a resounding singing voice. You don’t expect power on first glance… or taste. It is felt and understood by way of experiencing it. I am a sucker for Blancs de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) Champagne. They have won me over with ease. Not the least of which, Hebrart’s 1er Cru.
I snuck away for a night and spent a night with my guy in Reims. His race has seen very unfortunate times this past week, but it cannot be helped. These things happen. This epic, historical race sees heights and depths that range so great along the way for everyone. Sadly, their team has been given a healthy dose of misfortune so far. If there is one thing I have learned, though, about Garmin-Sharp-Barricuda, they never cease to surprise. In these coming weeks, I am certain they will come out with their heads high and their results respectful and unexpected.
We took Terry Theise up on a recommendation nearby: Le Grand Cerf for dinner. We were thrown back maybe 50 years and given very traditional service, though it seems they are attempting to modernize their cuisine. I laughed when I looked at the menu.Your choice was an 8 course meal for 75 Euro or a small appetizer and entree for nearly 100 euro to start. I guess we were to have 8 courses. Gotta love how the French make the ‘right’ decision for you if you let them. Thankfully they were a series of very small, 2 to 3 bite sensations. It gave us time to talk, catch up and enjoy a few moments in this incredible setting.
The next morning I rejoined my group and we visited Goutorbe before leaving town. They were the same folks who owned the hotel where we stayed. What we found so remarkable about this family estate was how central they were to the community itself. They had a large space where one could imagine village events taking place, weddings, lectures, seminars and community functions. They had a large movie screen where even we sat to watch a film on the history of their estate and how it began with selling rootstock and vines. The operated a lovely hotel, obviously. They seemed very involved with the local government and community happenings. We were all quite impressed!
This was certainly the most traditional of the estates we saw. Their production was a bit larger. Their formula pretty consistent from year to year: 60/40 Pinot Noir/Chard blend, 9 grams sugar dosage, malolactic fermentation. But formulas work for good reason. Tasting though the selection, I was struck by its textbook elocution of ‘traditional’ Champagne. It is precisely the kind I would use to illustrate the classical characteristics to my customers. The prices were great, too. For those trying to break out of the obvious Veuve or Moet, this would be a natural step into discovering Recolant-Manipulants, or small grower farmer fizz.
Getting Down to Business in the Land of Bubbles…
The morning is met with a rescheduled appointment, a series of unfortunate orienteering, but alas… unforgettable snapshots of memories that may not have been had we not gone off course. Not far from Ay, we visit Hautvilliers–home to the L’Abbaye of Dom Perignon. Though he did not invent these beads of beauty, he did learn how to perfect them and really grab hold of the method itself.
As we enter the cathedral, the same intoxicating smell of wet, chalky cellars fill my nostrils. I think to myself that churches should always smell so inviting. Perhaps I would frequent them daily! Classical music resounds in the space. Thin wooden benches are stacked left and right. There are massive wood cuttings one one side of the room, while renaissance murals line the other. Slate tombstones at the front before the altar commemorate the famous monk along with his scribe Dom Ruinart. I light a candle in the sanctuary and say a short prayer to my mom. I smile knowing this is as close as I might get to sharing Champagne with her. And it feels heavenly.
The church has a remarkable history, filled with strife, vulnerability and change. Since its erection in 650 AD by St. Nivard, it began its turbulent journey. Destroyed in 882 by the Normans, then restored in 1411 only to be burnt down 35 years later by the English in the 100 years war. It was consecrated in 1518, then burnt in 1562 by the Huguenots, rebuilt in 1603 and finally really restored with Dom Perignon’s presence beginning in 1672.
We press on to Verzenay, a blessed region in the Montagne des Reims that sees all Grand Cru vineyards. We meet with the consultant for Pehu-Simonet along with the son (who spoke little English). Here, we learn about their philosophies and methods. We begin to put together just how varied each vigneron really is, even if their common goal to produce high quality, small quantities are the same.
Like Geoffroy, they block malolactic. In doing so, they do not force the natural acidity to lessen. Both would agree this allows the fruit to be more pronounced, less obscured. I would agree, there was a difference to be sure– a lightness on the palate. Malolactic, much like it sounds, promotes a creamier milky body in the wine by inciting a lactic bacteria to convert the more tart malic acid levels. So here, in these wines, a linear quality is preserved. Apparently less than 1% of vignerons in Champagne block malo according to our guide, so this was very unusual that we met with two in a row!
Where they differ is yeast cultures. Geoffroy insists upon the native yeasts found on the skin and in the cellar to carry out the first fermentation. They believe it maintains the terroir of the region. Pehu-Simonet, though organic and in the process of becoming biodynamic, proudly stand by their choice to use non-native strains that are indigenous, however, to the Champagne region. For one thing, it is much less risky, and they feel confident they can repeat quality first fermentations time and again without the fear of interruption or, God forbid, a ‘stuck fermentation.’ When I asked him about possibly losing ‘terroir’, as the last winemaker insisted upon, he explained that while it may affect aromatics, that is not to be confused with terroir. Terroir, he continued, is felt on the palate. You cannot smell a region, you must taste the difference. One thing I found fascinating was that they selected much of their oak from the nearby Verzy forest (note: only their highest end wines see time in oak–most are steel or concrete). In doing that, he explained, there was another sense of local terroir added to their wines. It was all very poetic, and one thing was certain after all this ambiguity: both were phenomenal producers with distinctive styles. Where there was a note of opulence and restrained oxidation in Geoffroy’s bubbles, while a linear, tasteful reductive quality shined through in Pehu-Simonet’s wines.
We tried several wines at Pehu-Simonet, but the standouts for me were the NV Blancs des Blancs (thing lemon sorbet on a hot, sunny day) and the Blancs de Noir (100% Pinot Noir–a rare, rare thing to see), taken from the tenderloin of the slopes, beaming with dark berried fruit and coming out salty on the finish. It was difficult not to have the word ‘terroir’ beat through my brain with melodic persistence.
That, I think, is the true meaning of terroir.
Though hard to leave, we knew our next appointment would be equally interesting: Chartogne-Taillet, recently taken over by the ‘next’ generation: Alexandre Chartogne–handsome, gentle giant. He was very tall, good-looking, and he had the kindest eyes. His English was unbelievable, but he spoke with such humble hushed tones, you had to smile. Despite his quiet demeanor, however, he had an equal portion of fierce ambition to turn this 800 year old estate into something different. He seeks to shake things up in Merfy, a small village just north and west of Reims. How? In a region rampant with philosophies of blending, Alexandre is insistent that true terroir speaks through each parcel. Though he makes a famous cuvee–St. Anne– his focus is single vineyard expressions.
We spend the first part of the appointment getting to know one another. This was very important to do before meeting his cellar–a detail that I find important, as so many vignerons do it the other way around, tasting at the end. He showed us old journals of everyday notes his family has kept since 1700! He basically explained that this was important for him to understand his family’s tradition in taking over for future generations. He has a little guy of his own. Whether or not he takes over one day will be his decision. It is not forced on anyone. His son is two! Here’s hoping!
The most eye opening experience, really on this trip thus far, was sitting with Alexandre and being blind of 3 varying dosages on the same exact wine. Not only did it change the wine’s character remarkably, all four of us had extremely different preferences. One was dosed with 0 grams of sugar (Brut Nature), the others at 2 and 4 grams (Brut). Strangely, the first was the most appealing to me (and I usually like a dab of sugar to balance the acidity). The nose was almost nutty and fully enticing. The second took on a much fruitier presentation. It was favored by most. It had a fresh, vibrant quality without being too linear. Finally, the one with 4 grams, while interesting and well-received, left a very slight trace of residual presence on the palate–not in the lingering finish kind of way. To be clear, a dosage does and should vary dependent on zillions of reasons. Even a house style should listen to a vintage if something, like acid, has changed. For example, thought the sugar was noticeable in the one with 4 grams, we shortly thereafter had another wine of his–the 2006 Blanc de Blancs from the Heurtebise parcel–at a whopping 5 grams (yes, I am joking, as most ‘Brut’ in Champagne is 8-12 grams), and there wasn’t a trace on the palate. Time really integrated it, plus the acid was pretty rippin’! If you EVER have an opportunity to do this exercise, I recommend it. Tasting is truly the best teacher.
He showed us around the cellars, tasted us on pre-phylloxera 100% still (not fizzy) Pinot Meunier, and showed us old bottles from his personal non-bubbles collection. He then sat down with us, and really delved into his personal passion and vigor for maintaining single vineyard labels. His training in Cote des Blancs really affected him, changing his perspective forever. Though it goes against the norm, it creates yet another thought-provoking process in a region of such history and varied opinions.
As we drove away, we just couldn’t get over his passion– a passion so genuine, it was granular. You could touch it. Even if we understood the overarching technique and purpose for blending, his enthusiasm made it so you wanted to throw it out the window and hop on his bandwagon. His love was infectious.
Exhausted, we took our grubby, unkempt selves to a little pizzeria in Epernay. It was exactly what we needed. A bottle of Chianti and a couple of pies at 9 euros each. Epernay, while not over the top in its gastronomic options, was solid, quaint and right on the money. It was not overcome with tourists, overpriced as Reims or cheesy. It has a very local feel, many speak no English and your food is just very unassuming and well made. Even today, we sat at a simple corner Brasserie and had croque monsieur. It was sensational for 3 euro and full service. For real. Not to mention, yesterday we stopped at a couple little shops for bread, cheese and fresh salami to feed 4 people for about 12 euro. The same food at Whole Foods? Easily $45. It’s pretty awesome.
Stay tuned for the rest of Champagne in tomorrow’s blog…
In the meantime, on our way to Alsace today!
euro scribbles: a good trip starts with champagne, naturally.
Day 3 and I am itching to report to all of you my travels so far and those that lie ahead. It is, without a doubt, the most comprehensive, professional tour of France’s wine regions I have been to date. And I can hardly contain my excitement! My boss, his partner, their buddy and I are loosely following France’s more famous tour: that of cycling. As we weave in an out of the route, we will sip our way through the some of the most famous regions on earth: Champagne, Alsace, Jura, Burgundy, the Northern and the Southern Rhone. A finish in Paris will conclude a memorable couple weeks of glorious consumption: that of culture, cycling, food and, of course… wine!
The first day is always a mess. Looking back, it always feel a dream occurred. Jetlag manages to steal my soul, and I am little more than a robot, stiff-kneed and zombie-like. I meet my friends in Paris, who have just come from London and we pile in a car headed to Champagne. As I suggest a GPS rental (at the cost of the car for two weeks), they decide they have sharp enough orienteering skills to go without.
I should have known then… but I was too numb from travel to insist.
It is a sad day when four grown adults fall apart like children and resort to sand throwing when lost in the hillsides of beautiful Champagne. The ironic situation of traveling alongside the Tour de France to watch my fiancee’s team Garmin Sharp Barracuda, without I dare say… a Garmin, has been nothing short of frustrating. And so I begin this travel diary of my next 2 weeks in this wondrous country with this: get a Garmin. Fortunately, I know someone who might remedy this little mess up very soon.
Alas, between numerous bouts of getting lost, blaming one another, finding our way, then laughing about it (a bipolar bunch are we), there are some incredible visits with my favorite Champagne houses. They are not Veuve, nor Pommery, Mumms or Moet, they aren’t Taittinger nor even Bollinger. Per usual, I am after something smaller. Our focus is small growers (Recolant Manipulants) on this trip, or as we like to call it: farmer fizz. We speak to Terry Theise before this trip and his folks at Skurnik imports have set us up with 5 fantastic estates. Where the top 5 big guys in Champagne are literally responsible for over 2/3 of the entire production, these growers represent a humble 5,000 case production or so. Quality is everything. Terroir is the inspiration.
We arrive to our first lodgings: Castel Jeanson, owned by yet another grower who we are to visit tomorrow: Goutorbe. This hotel in Ay (about 30 minutes from downtown Reims?) seems to be known and loved by many, as a knowing smile erupts on the faces of everyone whom we tell we are here. The women who run it are so gracious and attentive. Their English is so superb, I feel silly even attempting my clumsy French, and the rooms are massive in comparison to most European hotels. I give it two thumbs up and thank Mr. Theise very much for this perfect recommendation.
Our first winery visit the very eveining we settle in town is Geoffroy (Jeff-wah), just next door to our lovely hotel. We step into the cellars, and immediately I feel at home when that musty smell of grapes skins and vinification greets me. The town even smells as such, walking by so many wineries along the road. We join another group of travelers here, and it is a perfect start. Their novice knowledge prompts our guide to run through basic Champagne production, giving us a crash course before moving on to more technical aspects. We learn that they use all gravity, not pumps, as well as all natural yeasts and no malolactic fermentation whatsoever. This becomes important when we realize through other estates how much this affects the style.
At the end, we taste through 4 wines: the Brut Traditional Expression, the 2006 Brut Empreinte, the 04 Extra Brut 1er Cru, and finally the rose of 100% Pinot Noir. The first–their entry level blend of 10% Chard, 55%Pinot Meunier and 35% Pinot Noir has a chalky, drying effect on the palate. It is quite serious for its place in life. The Empreinte is my favorite. Though a bit slutty and forward on the nose, offering voluptuous, nutty aromas, caramel and honey, it is too generous to turn away from–its firm acidity invites another sip with ease. Too much ease… The next, the 04, is most certainly the most complex. A day of jetlag, I was definitely appreciating the easier number before this one, but I knew that with a little work and thought, this was the hardest to break down. It was tightly wound with incredible depth and conversation. Finally, the pink was a pleasure, but my least favorite. Perhaps it came too late, as my heart was sold to the two preceding it. Nonetheless, its ample cherry fruit and dark berried bliss were nice treats for my tongue.
A dinner at a local restaurant in Epernay, and I am falling in my food. As I crawl to sleep not an hour later, I sleep for nine hours.
(stay tuned! more pics and stories to come. a few technical difficulties with the photos right now!)